COVID-19 Breakthrough: Study of Seattle-based fishing crew suggests antibodies stop infection

SEATTLE — An outbreak of the coronavirus on board a Seattle-based fishing boat in May could provide the first scientific proof that neutralizing antibodies protect people from infection and reinfection from the coronavirus.

The Seattle-based fishing vessel American Dynasty — owned by American Seafoods — took every step to be safe in May, when the entire crew of 120 tested negative for the coronavirus before setting sail. But 18 days later, after a stop in Bellingham, 85% of the crew became sick, and all who were sick tested positive for COVID-19.

Dr. Alex Greninger of the UW Medicine Clinical Virology Lab noticed there were three crew members who were not sick and who also showed high levels of virus-fighting, neutralizing antibodies in their blood before setting sail, meaning they were exposed to the virus at another time and recovered.

Greninger said that’s a major breakthrough for all of us because the same level of neutralizing antibodies protecting the crew members on the ship will potentially be available in a vaccine.

“This is the first time we’ve seen that having these antibodies has a correlative protection from reinfection in people,” Greninger said. “I think people are — as I am — exhausted from this virus, and its tyranny, and its oppression and how it affects all of your life. And so we’re looking for that hope. I think this is helpful. There is sort of a light at the end of the tunnel here coming out of this difficult summer.”

Greninger said the crew on the ship proved that eventually, protection against the pandemic is possible.

“It’s very transmissible,” he said. “It’ll continue to be a difficult foe, but you know, we can beat it. We can beat it.”